Mainstream media have the power to dictate the terms of engagement through their near ubiquity and capacity to frame the issues. Satire is a crucial tool in countering these narratives and the political control they exert. Dale Hudson (NYU Abu Dhabi) and Patricia R. Zimmermann (Ithaca College) explore another dimension of the viral in a playlist of social media satire.
First Wave COVID-19 Playlist: Satire
The ongoing commercialization of news media in the United States leaves populations particularly vulnerable to corporate-generated misinformation and state-generated disinformation. Viral videos circulating on social media offer a satirical counterpunch.
For decades, the left in US politics has shifted to what other places would call the center—or the center right. What used to be called the right has slipped dangerously close to neo-fascism. Corporations have come to rule the United States through de-democratization processes: campaign financing, deregulation, and privatization.
The emergence of for-profit cable news networks in the 1990s transformed sensationalized pandering for ratings and market share into a 24/7 business. CNN consolidated its power through live-broadcasting the US invasion of Iraq. Its broadcasts reassured viewers that so-called smart weapons steered around hospitals and schools to assassinate military personnel only.
Empire transitioned into a media spectacle in real time. The second invasion of Iraq self-consciously manipulated public opinion via the “shock and awe” strategy. Journalists embedded with the military, eliminating journalistic distance for access—and ultimately ratings.
In these consolidated media ecologies, how can people in the United States stay informed?
Fox reports on protests against social distancing, lockdown, and face masks. MSNBC reports on record unemployment and demand at food banks. Both networks demonize the other. Corporate media polarizes them even further.
Is it possible to find solidarity between Fox and MSNBC audiences? Is it possible to challenge the less visible effects of Sinclair Media, which injects local news broadcasts with corporate talking points, often camouflaged with socially conservative messages? Is it possible to spur US audiences of different political persuasions to consider their interconnections and interdependencies? Can the rest of the world begin to understand US politics during the pandemic?
It is far too early to speculate about the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists still scramble to study the virus, potential antibodies, transmission tracking, and other factors. Although Slavoj Žižek has already theorized COVID-19, most scholars and analysts wait for a better sense of what is happening. Provisional speculation is all we can muster.
The short video satires compiled in this playlist consider ways in which social media might provide platforms to enable political critiques within these corporate-controlled media spaces. They deploy comedy tactics to satirize politicians and ask us to think about our complicities with our own exploitation. They ask us to question not only the still-forming, constantly evolving “new normal,” but also to dig into the “old normal” that facilitated both the coronavirus and its global mishandling.
Capitalism is the Pandemic (Jason Livingston with Seeding Sovereignty, United States, 2020)
Buffalo-based media artist Jason Livingston wanted to figure out a way to protest creatively despite the lockdowns during the pandemic in New York State. He started imagining what kinds of protest are viable under these extreme conditions.
He agrees with prominent thinkers who argue that the crisis of capitalism preceded the pandemic. He reasoned that as spectator sports like auto-racing, baseball and (US-style) football were cancelled, aerial advertising rates would be discounted.
He partnered with Christine Nobiss and Seeding Sovereignty to create a GoFundMe campaign to raise the US$3,000 to make the banner that reads “Capitalism is the Pandemic” and hire the aerial advertising plane. Seeding Sovereignty also contributed community and social media outreach on the project.
Aerial advertising is not a typical platform for progressive politics. Its banners typically appeal to businesses and politicians that want to promote themselves to politically conservative audiences.
The originally slated flyover of New York City on International Worker’s Day (May 1st) was postponed due to weather for two days. The video documentation of the flyover has gone viral, and a social media campaign of still images of the plane and banner have populated various social media platforms.
Seeding Sovereignty organizes on indigenous issues on land sovereignty and water rights. It does “indigenous and womxn-led resistance.”
Every Covid-19 Commercial Is Exactly the Same (Microsoft Sam, United States, 2020)
Microsoft Sam’s four-minute supercut satires the opportunism of corporate branding as part of the allure of consumer products.
With the shutdown of the US economy, media re-centered attention from the pandemic as a story about confronting a public health crisis to one about not knowing how the country can continue without rethinking an economic model based on invisible low-paid labor and hyper-visible conspicuous consumerism.
The supercut of corporate strategies to reassure customers that things would return to normal reveals the intrusion of disaster capitalism into our daily lives. Coronavirus-washing joins green-washing and pink-washing (appeals to ecologically-inclined and LBGTQ+ customers, respectively, without modifying questionable business practices) to distract from the horrible corporate labor policies and the encouragement of consumption. A pandemic of media illiteracy twins with the public health pandemic.
The video remixes and mashes scenes from a variety of advertisements to reveal their formulaic appeals for consumer confidence through emotionally manipulative imagery of trite humanistic interactions with products and nondiegetic musical scores.
They follow the three-act plots and narrative arcs of classical Hollywood. They render appeals to long-standing commitment and a refusal to change, followed by a barrage of buzz words like “people” and “family.” At the end, the tempo of the music accelerates after the repetition of the mantra “together.” They conclude with the significance of credit card purchases because consumerism binds us more intensively than the occasional moments of applause for healthcare professionals.
As this video makes clear, normalization of consumerism during a crisis is a vacuous and even dangerous distraction.
Governor Andrew Cuomo Talks about his Daughter’s Boyfriend (Maria Decotis, United States, 2020)
Maria Decotis reveals that Republicans were not the only US politicians monopolizing precious live-coverage time during the pandemic with insipid ramblings.
This project turns to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. Although Cuomo and Trump are positioned as opposing politicians during the pandemic, Decotis’s videos reveals their rhetorical and patriarchal similarities.
At his daily press conferences, Cuomo’s rambling homespun wisdom about being a father to an adult daughter has been framed as a mode to combat the fictional NDS (Natural Defiance Syndrome) during the deadly pandemic. Whether bad “Boomer humor” or opportunistic rebranding, New York State has been the most impacted area in the United States.
Cuomo clearly articulated how the pandemic disproportionately affects racially and economically minoritized citizens. He has championed mask-wearing as socially responsible, an act normalized for decades in many parts of the world during other epidemics.
However, for all the good that Cuomo has done during the pandemic, he is hardly a progressive politician. He goes to battle against the US president in the most sensational ways, but he also quietly proposes Betsy DeVos-style and Bill Gates-complicit efforts to dismantle or “reimagine” (his term) public education that may intensify inequities.
Decotis’s video cautions us to avoid looking for so-called heroes amongst politicians.
How to Medical (Sarah Cooper, United States, 2020)
Writer and comedian Sarah Cooper uses TikTok, Twitter, and YouTube as a platform for satire. She mimes US President Donald Trump as he articulates the least useful and most harmful unsolicited advice to reporters during White House press conferences.
How to Medical appropriates Trump’s audio about whether injecting light or disinfectant into humans could provide coronavirus protection.
Cooper portrays Trump and his taskforce, whose startled responses visualize what many hope Dr. Deborah Birx’s stoic face concealed at the actual press conference. Stunned by her witting complicity with the US president’s rejection of science, social media posts speculate that the draping of her elaborate collection of Hermès silk scarves might signal secret messages about her true response to the president’s frequently inaccurate statements.
Trump’s ramblings pollute media ecosystems with both misinformation and disinformation. They infect our thinking like a virus, with both supporters and detractors forwarding and propagating them in community spread. In order to deny the US president free publicity, many argue against repostings. Another option is reworking them as Cooper does.
In interviews, Cooper describes her performances as satires of corporate executives, spouting nonsense during meetings while obedient underlings nod in agreement. She draws upon her own experiences at Google. They also evoke the market solutions that corporate heads promote that really serve mostly their own personal or corporate interests. For example, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean-in feminism” was criticized for its single-issue focus on sex and gender which excluded class, race/ethnicity, and other forms of social difference. Sandberg is a white billionaire.
As an African American woman, Cooper’s satirical performances of a white supremacist took on new layers of meaning after the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement gained new momentum, so that by June 2020 white people and even some rightwing politicians were supporting it.
Cooper’s posts have garnered media attention, including an interview in The Atlantic.
Randy Rainbow Song Parodies (Randy Rainbow, United States, 2020)
Comedian, singer, and songwriter Randy Stewart Rainbow is a viral media sensation with his Emmy-nominated YouTube parodies.
His song parodies hack the styles and melodies of Broadway musical theater with a heavy flourish of camp at its most queer, which is particularly satirical when paired with statements by homophobic politicians. They are produced as a one-man show, starring only Randy in various costumes. He digitally clones his own images as backup singers, who help him skewer the hypocrisies of those in power.
Rainbow also remixes found footage from the rightwing media outlet Fox News, but he has to cover the Fox logo with one of his own invention that reads “Fake News – It’s Not Real” to distinguish part of his song parodies from clip of actual Fox News broadcasts, which also populate YouTube. At other times, it transforms or the English-language Russian Times (RT) logo into “RR – Fake AF,” drawing upon accusations that the network disseminates Russian propaganda. The Trump presidency has been scandalized by waves of possible ties to Russia.
Three of these parodies attack US President Donald Trump and US Vice-president Mike Pence. A fourth celebrates New York State governor Andrew Cuomo and his CNN anchor brother Chris Cuomo, delighting liberal (and possibly some progressive) audiences by offending conservative ones.
Saturday Night Live At Home (NBC, United States, 2020)
The COVID-19 pandemic flips media flows, systems, and technologies. Amateur forms now infiltrate and become the lingua franca of professional media.
Gone are, high-end equipment, invisible interfaces, large crews, seamless production, and studios. Due to stay-at-home orders and public health imperatives for social distancing, shows have migrated to the home and now employ laptops, mobile phones, Skype, WebEx, and Zoom.
Many late-night comedians from politically engaged ones like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to politically disengaged ones like Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon have moved their shows to their homes, broadcasting from their dining room tables, home offices, or living rooms.
In an online Variety-hosted webinar on the pandemic’s disruption to the entertainment industries, panelists noted that free-to-air broadcast television has experienced the “YouTube-ization” of production values. Amateur and lo-fi production values create the illusion of the late-night host managing home-made means of production, a faux amateur authenticity that audiences actually find reassuring.
Intimacy, mistakes, modest production values, and self-reflexivity of media forms now triumph over slick production values and Hollywood’s hallmark “invisible” style.
Unlike the late-night talk show hosts, who have simply spliced their traditional formats onto FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom, Saturday Night Live reinvented and reinvigorated itself with low-end amateur technologies for the final episodes of its 2019–2020 season. Although it has typically relied on rather formulaic sketches, it has now created an entertainment media live-stream event, satirizing the commodification of amateur, lo-fi, and self-reflexive conventions in what it renamed Saturday Night Live at Home.
These two pieces address the inherent comedy lurking in Zoom mistakes and snafus in office meetings and church services.
What Brands REALLY Mean with their COVID Commercials (Funny Business, United States, 2020)
This satire of consumerist culture’s complicity with corporate branding focuses on marketing and promotions that monetize feigned concern and continue selling lifestyle fantasies achieved by purchasing unnecessary products.
The video showcases manipulative strategies that camouflage the product with affect—the feelings and emotions of wellbeing the product allegedly bestows.
The video also mocks corporate and billionaire charity culture. It sidesteps reflections on social welfare programs supported by fair taxing that would make such charity unnecessary. “Spend your stimulus cheque on it,” the voice rationalizes in order to convince people without an income to buy its product. It extols “We may even donate to a charity or something. Not a lot, but just enough to make us look like good guys.”
The video’s soothing tone mocks political talking points. The novel coronavirus pandemic and its staggering rates of hospitalization and death require rethinking supply chains for medical supplies, the absence of public health policies, the withdrawal from international organizations such as the World Health Organization, and the deforestation that drives species into close proximity heightening zoonotic transfer of viruses.
Corporate talking points such as “we’re all in this together” and “strange and uncertain times” are exposed as shameless lies. We are neither all in “this” together, nor is anything strange or uncertain. The video exposes who benefits from disaster capitalism.
It concludes by thanking us: “So here’s to you and everything that you do for us: The brand. The corporation. The 1%.”
Dale Hudson is Associate Professor of Film and New Media at New York University Abu Dhabi and Digital Curator for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). He is author of Vampires, Race, and Transnational Hollywoods (2017) and co-author of Thinking through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places (2015 with Patricia R. Zimmermann). His essays appear in Afterimage, American Quarterly, Cinema Journal, Jadaliyya, Media and Environment, Screen, Studies in Documentary Film, Studies in South Asian Film and Media, and elsewhere.
Patricia R. Zimmermann is Professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and Codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF). Her most recent books include Thinking Through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places (with Dale Hudson, 2015), Open Spaces: Openings, Closings, and Thresholds of Independent Public Media (2016), The Flaherty: Decades in the Cause of Independent Film (with Scott MacDonald, 2017), Open Space New Media Documentary: A Toolkit for Theory and Practice (with Helen De Michiel, 2018), and Documentary Across Platforms: Reverse Engineering Media, Place, and Politics (2019).